Nov. 4, 2010

By Jen Gunnels

NCAA

The top spot in the WCHA is up for grabs this weekend.

Leading the nation with a season-opening eight-game unbeaten streak, the University of Minnesota-Duluth moved up to the No. 2 spot in the nation in this weeks USA TODAY/USA Hockey mens poll for the first time since November 2004. Currently sitting atop the WCHA, the Bulldogs travel to Ralph Engelstad Arena this weekend to face a familiar opponent in No. 9 North Dakota, who trail the Bulldogs by just one point in WCHA standings.

I dont think weve played our best hockey yet; its still early,” said Minnesota-Duluth head coach Scott Sandelin. But I think weve had an opportunity to build our confidence and now well get to go to North Dakota this weekend and see how we measure up with what I feel is one of the best teams in the country.”

With the eight-game unbeaten streak, the Bulldogs have matched a program best start, achieved only twice before (1982-83 and 1989-90). So far this season, Minnesota-Duluth has outscored its opponents 34-17 and led in shots on goal in each of its eight contests. Seventeen different Bulldogs have notched at least one point on the season.

Weve managed to find ways to win games a lot of different ways,” Sandelin said. We didnt always score first, there have been a number of overtime games. I think looking at that front line we expected to get a lot of points out of those guys, but weve managed to spread the scoring out quite a bit too.”

Junior left winger Mike Connolly, senior right winger Justin Fontaine and junior center Jack Connolly lead both the team and the league in scoring so far this season with 13, 12 and 12 points, respectively. The trio took the ice this year with a long list of accolades between them: Mike Connolly kicked off his career as a Bulldog with back-to-back 40-point seasons, Fontaine is a two-time all-WCHA second team selection and Jack Connolly was named the WCHAs Preseason Player of the Year by league coaches.

We knew if we put them together they were going to be a catalyst for the rest of the team offensively, and the next part was who was going to score after them. Our second line has stepped in and really contributed too,” Sandelin said.

So far, junior center Travis Oleksuk and freshman right winger J.T. Brown have answered the question of who would score behind the front line. Oleksuk has 10 points on the season and leads the nation with four game-winning goals, while Brown has a share of the lead nationally for rookie scoring (tied with Daniel Carr of Union at 11 points). Meanwhile, between the pipes, freshman Aaron Crandall has amassed a nation-leading 0.98 goals against average in three outings, denying 69 of the 72 shots he has faced.

After watching his squad fall in the opening round of last years WCHA Final Five to his alma mater North Dakota, Sandelin entered his 11th season behind the Bulldog bench with 20 returning letterwinners and high expectations.

Were looking to the upperclassmen for their leadership, certainly,” Sandelin said. Theyve been in some big games and gained that experience. More importantly, I think, has been their experience with the disappointment of the season ending. That has really stuck with them and been a motivation.”

The Bulldogs have faced North Dakota more than any other team in their 68-year history and trail in the all-time series 132-73-9. In their last 12 visits to North Dakota, the Bulldogs have come away with just one win. The Fighting Sioux are coming off of a weekend split with Denver at home last weekend, while the Bulldogs won and tied at Bemidji State.

I think were going to have to continue to play strong offensively and really tighten up defensively. The real key this weekend, I think, will come down to special teams and goaltending. I think this will be a good measuring stick for us to see where we are against one of the top teams in the nation,” Sandelin said.

Looking Ahead to Other Weekend Action

Along with the Bulldogs and Fighting Sioux, six other Top-15 teams will face off in key weekend matchups. No. 5 Michigan will travel to No. 15 Alaska for a CCHA weekend series in Fairbanks where two streaks are on the line: the Nanooks are undefeated at home and the Wolverines are unbeaten on the road so far this season. Michigan leads the all-time series 39-8-1 and features the second highest point-producing defense in the nation (4-19=23).

The Wildcats of No. 10 New Hampshire continue their tough season-opening schedule with an away game at No. 4 Boston College in a Hockey East clash on Friday. The Wildcats have the edge in the all-time series with the Eagles 62-59-12, but will be on the hunt for their first win over Boston College since February 21, 2009. On Saturday the Wildcats will take on another Hockey East opponent in UMass-Lowell, who fell to Boston College Tuesday night by a score of 5-2. The Eagles improved to 5-2-0 on the season with the win. In other Hockey East action, No. 7 Maine will square off with No. 3 Boston University on Saturday. The BU Terriers own the second-longest unbeaten streak in the nation at seven games while Maine boasts Octobers Hockey East Player of the Month in junior forward Spencer Abbott. Abbott has notched at least one point in each of the teams seven games so far this season, for 13 total points.

ECAC Hockey action heats up this weekend as No. 7 Yale hosts Princeton and Quinnipiac in a pair of weekend contests. Yale has a 124-99-8 all-time edge over Princeton in a series that dates back to 1899. Saturdays clash with Quinnipiac will feature a day of events in support of Yale womens ice hockey center Mandi Schwartz, who is battling leukemia. The day will include Mandis March,” a 7.5-mile trek along a trail between the two schools ice hockey rinks, and the Annual Yale Club Hockey Night Dinner leading up to the 7 p.m. puck drop.

In Atlantic Hockey action, conference-leading Robert Morris heads for a weekend series at Holy Cross. The series will be the home opener for the Crusaders and the first matchup between the two programs. Robert Morris senior Danny Urban leads all defensemen in the nation with the highest points per game average at 1.33, helping the Colonials to their best six-game start in school history at 5-1-0.